Dragon Boating – A Survivor’s Story (as it appeared on Ezine @rticles)
When something like breast cancer touches your life, many emotions are experienced: fear, anger, pain, an appreciation for one’s loved ones and the little things in life to name a few. If you’re lucky enough to make it through – after tests, lumpectomies, mastectomies, chemotheraphy, radiation, reconstruction – an entirely new palette of emotions arises for many survivors. Now you’re discharged from the medical community that has supported you thus far and out of the loop with many co-workers, friends and family – isolated and sometimes guilty that you survive while others you have met haven’t. You’re depressed, fed up with being a burden, still in shock from the changes to your body, worry whether intimacy is ever again possible. Everyone is expecting you to “get on with life” – but how can you, feeling somehow “less” than you were before? Where do you start?
In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie of the University of British Columbia began a study to dispel a myth associated with breast cancer survivors and exercise. Until then, survivors were advised not to push themselves physically, and in particular to avoid strenuous use of their arms, in order to avoid a condition called lymphedema. As most breast cancer patients have lymph nodes surgically removed from their armpits, lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is unable to function adequately. Tissue swells and fluid is retained. The skin may eventually become discoloured and may become a permanent deformity called elephantiasis.
“Dr. Don” saw dragon boating as the ideal sport to introduce to the survivors. Dragon boating involves strenuous upper-body repetitive motion. It is excellent for cardio fitness, trunk and arm muscles and is safe as it is non weight-bearing. He dubbed the team “Abreast In A Boat” because he also recognized that it would be a sport that could bring women together in their shared experience while increasing awareness for a disease that affects so many. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 1 in 9 women are expected to develop breast cancer during her lifetime and one in 28 will die of it.
As a result of Dr. Don’s research, breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams have developed across the globe. The women (and some men) survivors have proven Dr. Don’s thesis time and time again. Statistically, there was far less lymphedema and definitely better physical and mental health amongst the paddlers. Also as a result – the ensuing public awareness of the importance of early detection and financial support towards finding a cure for breast cancer has been incalculable.
I have been a member of Abreast In A Boat for the past two years. There are several crews across the BC Lower Mainland but together we make up one larger organization. I have had the honour of bi-weekly practices in Dr. Don’s original dragon boat – “The Doriana” on the beautiful waters of the Burrard Inlet, where we are supervised by bald eagles and visited by seals. We paddle in every weather condition, precipitated by a warm-up, ending with a cool down and pot-luck snacks and coffee (or a bottle of wine) in our clubhouse. The season typically runs from late March until early August, but there are social events year round and we man information booths at many sporting events, and health shows to increase awareness of breast cancer.
In the fall of each year, we recruit new members and sign fitness contracts so that by the time the season begins, we are each fit enough to participate. Fitness workshops are also held in the spring to help us towards this goal. During the season, we compete locally, provincially and even internationally. We are easy to spot an any competition – while every crew has its individual character, we are together a sea of pink – after the pink ribbon which is now recognized universally for breast cancer awareness. Most crews have made up their own songs to celebrate their accomplishments and tease their opponents – one of my favourite ends in “If we beat cancer, we’ll beat you!”
At most regattas or competitions, we hold the “Flower Ceremony”, during which the survivor teams line up parallel to each other, holding the dragon boats together while we sing and wave pink carnations to remember our fallen sisters. It is followed by a minute of silence, after which we and anyone on shore who wants to join us throw our carnations into the water. Then we reach out and hug one another – rarely without tears. It is an incredibly moving experience not only for us but also for the family and friends onshore who know or have lost someone to this terrible disease.
What could not be anticipated from Dr. Don’s original study was the impact it would have on breast cancer survivors. For many like myself, it physically and emotionally became the starting line for “getting on with life”. It signalled the end of isolation, the beginning of a deep camaraderie only those who had experienced living with cancer could understand. Together we commiserate, become a team and learn to support each other. Nothing can match the exhilaration of our paddles cutting through the water in perfect unison, gliding forward, focused on the beat set by our drummer. Together we “leave it all on the water” – the fear and uncertainty that kept us from moving forward in life.